Documentary photography is a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage

Nan Goldin, 'Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC' 1982
Nan Goldin
Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Development of documentary photography

August Sander, 'Young Farmers' 1914
August Sander
Young Farmers 1914
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010

Until the mid-twentieth century, documentary photography was a vital way of bearing witness to world events: from shoot-from-the-hip photographs of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa to the considered portraits of poor farmers by Dorothea Lange

In the short film below, Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips talks about the evolution of documentary photography and how the invention of ‘dry plate’ negatives changed the medium forever.

1950s and 1960s: social documentary photography

During this period the tradition of documentary photography was reinvented. Artists began to see the camera as a tool for social change, using it to shed light on injustice, inequality and the sidelined aspects of society. However, social documentary photography is often a subjective art and not all photographers in this category intend their images to aid the bettering of society.

Robert Frank, 'Mary and Pablo in high grass' circa 1956
Robert Frank
Mary and Pablo in high grass circa 1956

Lisette Model’s close-up views of people on the streets of Paris, New York and the French Riviera were often taken without the subjects’ awareness or permission. From 1949 onwards, Robert Frank started to take pictures which reflected his search for artistic freedom, shooting stories which revolutionised the expressive potential of the medium.

Contemporary artists: New documentary forms

Boris Mikhailov, 'At Dusk' 1993
Boris Mikhailov
At Dusk 1993

Paul Graham, 'Television Portrait (Cathy, London)' 1989
Paul Graham
Television Portrait (Cathy, London) 1989
© Paul Graham
Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, 'Political 1 sheet 19' 2010
Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin Political 1 sheet 19 2010 © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

With the rise of television and digital technology there was less demand for published photography and it began to go into decline but has since found a new audience in art galleries and museums. Putting these works in a gallery setting places the work at the centre of a debate surrounding the power of photography and the photographer’s motivations. Their work raises questions of the documentary role of the photograph today and offers alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world in which we live.

Documenting war

Don McCullin, 'The Battlefields of the Somme, France' 2000
Don McCullin
The Battlefields of the Somme, France 2000
© Don McCullin

Watch the introductory film to Conflict, Time, Photographyan exhibition which was at Tate Modern in 2014. It looked at the documentation of violence and its legacy from 150 years of conflict around the world.

Don McCullin is one of the most important war photographers of the late twentieth century. Throughout his career he has documented the devastation caused by events of international significance including conflicts in Vietnam, Lebanon, Cyprus and Biafra. Watch the TateShots film where he discusses his work:

Watch more interviews with photographers who exhibited in Conflict, Time, Photography.

Photographing History
Listen to photographers Hrair Sarkissian, Chloe Dewe Mathews and Diana Matar join in conversation with Conflict, Time, Photography curators to discuss their relationship to conflict, modes of representation and historical narratives.

Documenting Society

In Britain

Watch the film about Tate Britain’s 2007 exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain, which took a the chronological look at documentary photography in Britain over the past 150 years.

Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929 to now
This exhibition which was at Tate Liverpool in 2006 looks at the construction of a national culture and self-image through documentary mediums. Read the exhibition guide.

BP Spotlight: Chris Killip
Photographer Chris Killip documented the political and social issues of working-class communities in Britain the 1970s and 1980s. Read the exhibition text to this display which was at Tate Britain in 2014. 

There were many untold truths about our country. We had poverty, we had unemployment, we had a class system that wasn’t convenient…I tried to draw these people into my vision.
Don McCullin 

McCullin talks about his photographs of homeless people in east London from the 1960s onwards. 

TateShots: Martin Parr
Martin Parr has been documenting middle class Britain since the 1980s. Watch him talk about his work when TateShots visited his studio in 2007.

Another London
This exhibition which was at Tate Modern in 2012, explores the capital city through the eyes of some of the biggest names in international photography. Read the room guide and watch the short films.

In America

Henry Wessel walks TateShots through his technically sophisticated photographs of America’s social landscape and how these fleeting moments in the everyday lives of strangers help describe the world in which we live.

Diane Arbus: Three Images
American photographer Diane Arbus was famous for photographing individuals marginalized by society, challenging concepts of identity, beauty and normalcy. This article looks at three of her works.

Around the world

‘I love witnessing the whole world emerge when you print.’

Watch this short film with Miyako Ishiuchi whose work offers a radical vision of post-Hiroshima Japan. She argues that her photographs aren’t documents of society, but a self-made ‘created reality’.

David Goldblatt in conversation
David Goldblatt has been documenting the changing political landscape of South Africa for over five decades. Watch him discuss his work with curator and art historian Tamar Garb.

Beyond the threshold
Read this interview with Canadian artist Jeff Wall about how the urban environment has found its way into his work and find out more about the 2005 retrospective of his work at Tate Modern.

Daido Moriyama: Erotic City
Moriyama’s creates raw and gritty images by using an ordinary compact camera. In this short film he takes us on a journey around Tokyo.

Other perspectives

Magical, powerful, simple, shocking
Photographers Juergen Teller, Sarah Jones, David Goldblatt and Chris Killip talk about which photograhs have had an impact on them, including the work of August Sander and Boris Mikhailov’s portrayal of post-Communist Russia.

Cruel and Tender
What is the place of documentary in art? This article looks at this debate by looking at significant image-makers from Tate Modern’s 2003 exhibition Cruel + Tender.

Documentary Photography in detail

Akram Zaatari, 'Students of Aisha Om el Mo'minin School for Girls. Sakakini (right) and Hadiyeh Bsat. School courtyard, Saida, Lebanon, 1948-49. Hashem el Madani' 2007
Akram Zaatari
Students of Aisha Om el Mo'minin School for Girls. Sakakini (right) and Hadiyeh Bsat. School courtyard, Saida, Lebanon, 1948-49. Hashem el Madani 2007
© Akram Zaatari, courtesy Hashem el Madani and Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

The aesthetics of documentary
This Tate Etc. article charts the development of documentary film and photography through the decades, from the work of John Grierson and Allen Funt’s Candid Camera to Michael Apted’s 7 Up and works by Gillian Wearing

The Libidinal Archive: A Conversation with Akram Zaatari
In this interview the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari discusses his major works of the last fifteen years, addressing some of the crucial questions informing his approach to video, photography and the politics of documentary representation.

Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century
This Tate Paper uses a portrait Sander made around 1930 showing two circus workers, an ‘Indian’ man and a white woman, to assess how Sander’s work deals with the cognitive and ethical difficulties posed to interwar Germany by its ‘dark strangers’.

Emila Medková: The Magic of Despair
This Tate Paper looks at the surrealist documentary photography of Emila Medková (1928–1985) and how she found metaphors in the world of objects and spaces for the absurd and oppressive state of post-war central Europe. 

Related glossary terms:

PhotographyMagnum PhotosDusseldorf School of Photography, subjective photography, American social realist photography